NAIROBI, September 2 – Three years after investing in Kenya, the Fairmont chain of hotels is upbeat that its foray into this market was no mistake.
This is despite falling almost 2 years behind schedule to their projected ‘return of investments’ from an industry that was enjoying one of its best periods in over a decade.
By the end of 2007, tourism had recorded earnings of Sh68 billion making it the biggest foreign exchange earner for the country and overtaking the agricultural sector which for a long time had led the pack.
With a whopping Sh2.4 billion set aside for refurbishments, the chain of hotels already boasts ownership of some luxury hotels in the region; Fairmont Mt Kenya Safari Club, The Norfolk, Zanzibar Safari Club and Fairmont Mara Safari Club.
The renovations exercise kicked off in 2006, with the actual planning and designing process.
“We had a really great first year in 2006; we produced great results and succeeded in introducing the Fairmont brand to the local market,” Fairmont’s Regional Managing Director, Sean Billing told Capital Business.
In 2007, the hammer and chisel went to work at the prestigious Fairmont Mara Safari Club which was closed in stages in order not to interrupt operations. The tented resort is now fully operational.
“In fact we just received an award for the number three hotel in the world!” Billing proudly mentioned.
Refurbishments later began at the Norfolk and the heavenly Mount Kenya Safari Club. They are still on-going.
Fairmont had anticipated re-launching the East African hotels early this year but their plans were derailed by the post-poll turmoil.
“All these activities were a preamble to taking advantage of what we believed was going to be the best year for the industry (2008),” Billing noted, admitting the hotel chain incurred 50 percent losses during the post election crisis further compounded by the worldwide economic downturn.
Determined to carry on with the refurbishments on the original budget, Billing says, Fairmont had to make some operational adjustments.
300 employees were laid off.
Some took up early retirement and others opted for unpaid leave while still receiving benefits.
“The most difficult thing for such a process is that the first one in, is the first one out.
Unfortunately some of these people had been hired in the last two years and the company had invested a lot in training them,” he said.
Billing, however, says some people have resumed work after the calm returned.
Currently the chain has 600 employees in Kenya and about 180 in Zanzibar.
Labour of love
‘Renovation of The Norfolk Hotel, I must say, is a labour of love,’ Billing observed.
“I would rather build a new hotel than renovate one. Trying to put back a property that is more than a century old is no joke; nobody actually leaves you a plan on exactly how you go about it and you tend to find much more than you actually anticipated behind the walls.”
The Norfolk is well into its 14th month of the Sh826 million restorations.
The historic facility has 165 rooms; eight in the “1937 block” and seven loft suites which will become the Fairmont Norfolk’s signature rooms.
Already, some of the new-look features have been unveiled. The famous Lord Delamere Terrace and Bar has received a tender facelift, looking brighter, more spacious but still retaining its historic element. Remember, it was from this terrace that early settlers converged before setting off to the highlands. Years later, the same spot became the preferred venue for many a business deals.
After the renovations, the terrace got a baby brother; the Lord Delamere Patio with a sitting capacity of 60 ideal for cocktail parties.
Taking a walk round the upcoming new-look Norfolk one can’t help getting a sense of déjà vu.
“Our goal is to achieve a restoration and not a renovation of this historic hotel,” Billing emphasised.
The hotel is acquiring a modern look without losing its history. An entire wing has a new orange earthy wall that I must admit is quite appealing to the eye, with more new gardens, more flowers, a lawn job in progress and generally a more cheery look.
Billing says the renovation is about 60 percent done.
Visitors will further be treated to a new restaurant called ‘Tatu’ which basically means three in Kiswahili, a reflection of the fusion of the three cuisines the restaurant will be serving – Kenyan, Indian and European.
Simply put, despite a delayed renovation process and an industry that has suffered a major set back due to the violence experienced in the country early this year, the Fairmont chain of hotels is still rearing to go.